"Rattle of the Chains"
Wildfire's latest CD comes complete with an endorsement from bluegrass/newgrass luminary J.D. Crowe. That's hardly a surprise in light of the band's history: Four members of the quintet -- resonator guitarist Phil Leadbetter, acoustic guitarist Robert Hale, mandolinist Darrell Webb and bassist Curt Chapman -- have played alongside Crowe in the New South. As for Barry Crabtree, Wildfire's banjoist, he earned his stripes while touring for a decade as one of Larry Sparks's Lonesome Ramblers. No, these guys aren't your average pickers.
Nor is "Rattle of the Chains" ordinary, brimming as it is with sparkling solos, expressive vocals and nicely tailored harmonies. The 12 tracks offer a consistently entertaining blend of original tunes, country covers and bluegrass favorites. Among the new ballads is the standout saga "Their Father's Land," an ironic tale concerning sibling war and greed, co-written by Webb and featuring his stirring tenor. Elsewhere, Tom T. Hall's "Ballad of Forty Dollars" inspires a colorful and amusing tangent, while Carter Stanley's "Sweetest Love" finds Wildfire vigorously mining its bluegrass roots. Of course, the common denominator is the stellar picking, with Leadbetter's slide work often providing a soulful counterpoint to the band's banjo-driven propulsion.
Like the better known and seemingly ubiquitous Dobro player Jerry Douglas, Leadbetter has a knack for keeping good company. "Slide Effects," his recent solo release, is teeming with guests, including the extraordinary guitar flat-picker Stuart Duncan and vocalists Marty Raybon, Steve Gulley and Alice Vestal. The singers help Leadbetter cover a lot of ground without a misstep -- from the vintage refrain "There's More Pretty Girls Than One" to Sting's "Fields of Gold." Yet it's the instrumental tracks -- particularly Leadbetter's evocative "Moon Racer" and "Sea of Tranquility," plus the terrific covers of Jimmy Gaudreau's "Glide Path" and the classic "Steel Guitar Rag" -- that keep you coming back for more.
-- Mike Joyce
Appearing Saturday at the Birchmere with the Seldom Scene.